The title of the play helps us understand what Wilde is satirizing or poking fun at. For starters, he is skewering middle-class hypocrisies about domestic bliss; one of the confusions about talking about the Victorian British "middle class" is that these are people we today would consider, on the whole,...
The title of the play helps us understand what Wilde is satirizing or poking fun at. For starters, he is skewering middle-class hypocrisies about domestic bliss; one of the confusions about talking about the Victorian British "middle class" is that these are people we today would consider, on the whole, wealthy. Middle-class Victorians, at least in public, paid an immense lip service to "earnestness" or sincerity, often typified as a sentimental dedication to home and hearth, while at the same time, as the play indicates, often leading double lives. In fact, Algernon asserts that all married British men lead double lives, meaning they all have a life on the side that their wives are unaware of. Jack and Algernon themselves have double lives to the extent they have invented imaginary alter egos named Ernest and Bunbury. As it happens, both Jack and Algernon pretend to be Jack's imaginary brother Ernest: the irony (and satire on earnestness) is that both of them show their lack of complete earnestness or honesty in taking on the fake name Ernest.
Adding to confusion and satirizing a concept that was an important part of the "arts for arts sake movement" Wilde was part of, it happens that Jack's name truly is Ernest. This pokes fun at the idea that Wilde wrote about in his essay/dialogue "The Decay of the Art of Lying." In it, he repeats the aesthete's theme that nature imitates art: once an artist paints clouds in a certain way, for example, people see them that way. In his play, he extends that idea comically to the fictions we weave about ourselves: how easy it is to become what we pretend to be, as happens literally to Jack when he finds out he is Ernest.
Jack's name being Ernest also gives Wilde a chance to spoof or satirize another frequently commented on social ill: the inadequate nurse maid or caretaker of young children (we can think, too, of the children in Barrie's Peter Pan having a dog for a nurse): in this case, the nurse. Mrs. Prism, puts her book in the bassinet and baby Jack/Ernest in a satchel, leading to him being left at Victoria Station and found by Mr. Cardew. This exaggerates the incompetence of nurse maids, but it is a theme that would have resonated with the audience.